What does long term hunger feel like?

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Hunger quiz: What does long-term hunger feel like?

We have all felt the pangs of hunger. Going for a few hours or most of a day without food, we are aware of the keen signal that our body gives our mind that we are hungry–a sharp ache or pang that can drive out most other thoughts. But what is severe hunger like over a longer period? This is really unknown to us. Detailed information about people that have to go without food for long periods due to causes such as conflict and drought is not readily available. Yet it is important to get some idea of what long term hunger is like to help us understand people whose hunger is more acute and gone on much longer than that which we have experienced.

To help us understand hunger existing not for a day, but many weeks, we present, in abridged form, a description provided by Tony Hall (formerly a Congressman from Dayton, Ohio and ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) in his 2006 book, Changing the Face of Hunger (pp. 74–89). He undertook this fast to protest an action of Congress. He fasted from April 4 to April 26, 1993–three weeks and one day.

Being hungry for three weeks, in Hall’s words:

Physically and psychologically, the first week of the fast was the hardest. I was horribly hungry–I could say ‘in agony’ –and getting weaker by the day. I thought constantly about what I would like to eat–that last meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and Caesar salad; some future meals with some of my favorite foods, such as steak, roast beef, and key lime pie….

Family mealtimes were the worst. I couldn’t go to the table because the food would be too tempting, and not being able to eat it would be agonizing. Janet, Matt, and Jyl would try to hide from me when they snacked between meals….. I followed Dick Gregory’s advice to fill up on water. I really poured it down. Since it was the only thing I was consuming, I paid a great deal more attention to it than I ever had before. I really noticed the difference in taste when drunk from the tap at home, the office, or someplace else. My sense of smell also heightened throughout the fast. I could tell what people had eaten because their bodies gave off aromas that I had never noticed before….

The hardest day of the fast came on Easter, which was my seventh day without eating. Janet and I had gone on a retreat in Maryland with some friends, and our friends prepared a typical big American holiday dinner–turkey, potatoes, dressing, pie, cake. It drove me nuts. I had to leave them, go outside and take a walk, to get away from those wonderful aromas. I decided that if I could get through this day, I would be over the hump. I did, and I was.

Just as Dick Gregory said, the sensation of hunger faded in about a week. It’s as if the body gives up on getting food and stops demanding it. From then on, I could join my family at mealtimes and not be bothered a bit . It was a revelation about the poor and the hungry, to whom I came to feel exceptionally close as the fast went on. I now fully understood, in a way I never had before, a strange phenomenon I had witnessed during famines: starving children who refused to eat when food was finally offered to them.

The absence of hunger pangs did not mean I wasn’t feeling the physical effects of the fast, however. I’d wake up in the morning feeling fine. My head would be clear. I would think I had lots of energy. But after noon, I would fade. The energy would desert me and weakness would take over. I’d need to nap. Then, when I woke from the nap, I’d feel like I couldn’t get up because I was so tired. Lacking the fuel of food, my body temperature apparently dropped, and I felt cold all the time. It also seemed my brain slowed down in the afternoon; I felt “dull.” I thought of poor children who don’t do well in school, who fall asleep in the afternoon, who become poor students because of poor nutrition. Remarkably, some of my vital signs–blood pressure, the results of blood tests–actually improved.

[On April 26, Hall ended his fast.] Because the fast had been a very public endeavor, I thought the breaking of it should be as well. I invited some reporters to my office…and had a V-8. I hadn’t eaten for twenty-two days, and that thick, salty vegetable juice tasted exceptionally good…Unfortunately I could only sip a little bit. Because my stomach had essentially been shut down for three weeks, I would have to coax it gradually back to use, maybe not being able to enjoy a full meal till the end of the week. I had lost twenty-three pounds–dropping from a robust 180 to a gaunt 157….

By answering this quiz, you have made a donation to support hungry people. See the Hunger Notes first page for your donation amount and this month’s recipients. Thank you very much for your concern for hungry people!

  • 1. How long did Ambassador Hall fast ?
  • 2. When did Tony Hall feel the hungriest?
  • 3. What explanation did he offer for when he felt the hungriest?
  • 4. During the latter 2-3 weeks of the fast, the principal symptom that Hall described was?
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